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Children smile as they eat school lunch.


Partnership to Promote School Lunch Reform & Scratch Cooking

Organic Valley believes everybody deserves delicious, high-quality, nutritious food. That’s why we are partnering with the Chef Ann Foundation to spread awareness about the opportunities to improve access to scratch-cooked school lunches for school children across the country.

We’re celebrating Giving Tuesday by promoting the important work of the Chef Ann Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to heightening awareness of scratch-cooking—the use of whole and fresh ingredients instead of pre-assembled or processed meals—in school lunchrooms.

The goal of this collaborative effort is to further awareness of the opportunities for improved school lunches through partnerships between parents, school districts, and school lunchroom staff, said Jerry McGeorge, Organic Valley executive vice president of people.

“Change comes easiest when people work together, and we’d like to emphasize the importance of partnerships,” he said. “We all bring different strengths, resources, and abilities to the effort.”

Scratch-Based Cooking in Lunchrooms

Mara Fleishman was struck by her kindergartener’s school lunch of French toast sticks, maple syrup with no maple syrup, and sugary canned pears in Boulder, Colorado. It led her on a journey to transform school lunch—she left a career at Whole Foods to become executive director at the Chef Ann Foundation in 2013.

To understand how this organization transforms school lunch today it’s important to understand its roots: starting with Chef Ann Cooper. She has 30 years under her belt as a cook and chef, including 15 in school food service in Berkeley, California, and Boulder, Colorado. Nicknamed the “Renegade Lunch Lady,” Chef Ann has an unrelenting commitment to local ingredients and scratch-based cooking—the use of whole and fresh ingredients instead of pre-assembled or processed meals. She served as the food service program director for the Berkeley Unified School District from 2005 to 2009, where she began to eliminate processed foods from the menu.

Fleishman met Chef Ann while she was serving on a parent group seeking to transform the French toasty school lunch in Boulder. The group called on Chef Ann to explain to the food service director and superintendent how the district could incorporate more scratch cooking into its meals. Chef Ann received requests like this from groups across the country–leading her to create the Chef Ann Foundation in 2009.

At its core, the foundation seeks to provide technical assistance for school food programs that want to move toward healthier food. This work encompasses recipe development, grants for salad bars, staffing resources, and kitchen renovations.

The Chef Ann Foundation also provides support to parent groups so that real change can happen.

“We’ve seen in many communities it is a parent group that ends up pushing a school food program so hard that they create change,” Fleishman said. “We try to get them prepared, organized, educated so when they approach their school food teams they understand what they’re asking for and what’s possible.”

The Price of School Lunch

It’s important for parents (and all of us) to realize that schools get reimbursed an average of $3.60 per lunch, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service. This leaves food service directors about $1.30 per meal to spend on food and preparation after staffing and building costs–not enough for all-organic ingredients, Fleishman said. “People have unrealistic expectations of what a school food program should look like,” she added.

School food directors can impact how kitchens are run and how things are cooked. This involves adding fresh storage spaces and changing staff roles and schedules to accommodate cooking over reheating. They can also market newer, healthier options to the children, against the deluge of processed food promotions hitting them outside the main lunch line.

  • About 30 million school lunches are served per day in the United States, according to the USDA.
  • About 22 million meals per day are served as free and reduced-price meals, according to the School Nutrition Association.

School administrators are not always well versed in how to create change within school food programs, Fleishman said. They also face competing priorities.

“Districts are facing so many challenges to make class sizes smaller, to get more qualified teachers in the door, to raise (their) impact on education. A lot of times nutrition falls short,” she said.

Superintendents and administrators can change budgets to provide more funding for food purchases within their communities. And ultimately, improving nutrition can impact academic success by raising test scores and grades. According to the Chef Ann Foundation, serving scratch-cooked food increases meal participation, attendance, and physical activity among students.

Putting Food Equity at the Forefront

For some students, a school lunch or breakfast will be their only meal of the day.

“We have to make sure kids are not eating processed food that is not good for their bodies–that is not giving them the momentum they need,” Fleishman said. “That we’re not starting kids off in kindergarten with an inequitable approach to life.”

Advocates argue that universal, or free meals for all, lunch programs reduce the barriers and stigma associated with participating in the school lunch program. California, Maine, New York City, Boston, and Chicago are some of the places that offer free meal programs for all. An increase in students eating school food often leads to increased demand for better meals.

“We have to make sure we’re providing all kids in America an equitable springboard to thrive and meet their potential,” Fleishman said.

Together, federal and state governments, administrators, school food teams, and parents—all have the power to transform school lunch.

Advocating for Healthier School Meals

Organic Valley is providing a monetary donation to the foundation and helping raise awareness, Fleishman said.

“Progressive, visionary work requires partners like Organic Valley,” she said.

Hannah Wente began her interest in food systems as a 4-H kid in southeastern Wisconsin. She holds a Master’s in Public Health from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and is interested in the ways food shapes our collective well-being. You can find her taming weeds at her community garden plot or paddling the nearest lake.

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